I spent the whole morning waiting restlessly for Roman.Surely he had to come home at some point to sleep, right? Of course, being part greater immortal, he’d have a lot of the traits of his angelic parentage – and angels and demons never needed to sleep.Roman could likely get by on very little rest and simply chose to sleep in as often as he did for the fun of it.
I left a message on Jerome’s cell phone, which was useless more often than not.
I also kind of wished I hadn’t parted from Carter so soon. Caught up in the Pictionary absurdity, I’d totally forgotten about my siren song encounters. Indeed, I’d nearly written them off until last night’s repeat. But if Jerome was hard to get a hold of, Carter was impossible. He kept no cell phone and seemed to take personal pride in showing up at unexpected moments.
Left with no other options, I called my friend Erik. He was a human who ran a store specializing in esoteric and pagan goods. He was often my backup for bizarre supernatural situations, sometimes knowing more than my friends did. As I dialed his store’s number, I couldn’t help but marvel at the circles my life seemed to run on. I was repeating the same pattern over and over. Something weird would happen, I’d fruitlessly attempt to contact my superiors, and end up seeking Erik for help.
“Why the fuck does this keep happening to me?” I muttered as the phone rang. Cody never got stalked by paranormal forces. Neither did any of the others. It was like I was specifically being targeted. Or cursed. Or simply imbued with bad luck. Yes, my life was a never-ending spiral, doomed to repeat the same patterns of annoying immortal threats – and miserable romantic situations.
“Erik? This is Georgina.”
“Miss Kincaid,” he said in his usual genteel voice. “A pleasure to hear from you.”
“I need your help with something. Again. Are you around? I wanted to swing by before work.”
There was a pause, and then I heard regret in his voice. “Unfortunately, I have to run errands and close the store today. I’ll be back this evening. When do you finish work?”
“I’ll probably be free at ten.” Another evening shift.
“I can meet you then.”
I felt bad. His store usually closed around five. “No, no…that’s too late. We could try tomorrow….”
“Miss Kincaid,” he said gently, “I’m always happy to see you. It’s no difficulty at all.”
I still felt guilty when we disconnected. Erik was getting old. Shouldn’t he be in bed by ten? Nine? There was nothing to be done for it now, though. He said he’d do it, and I’d seen him when he was obstinate. I had nothing to do but wait now and hope Roman would surface before I had to work. When he didn’t, I simply left him a note saying I needed to talk to him immediately. It was the best I could do.
At work, no one was out or – best of all – hungover. I was caught up on my paperwork, which gave me a lot of free time. Whether that was good or bad, I couldn’t say. It kept me from messing up my job but merely left me in a cycle of rumination.
It was nearly closing time when I noticed Seth at his usual station in the caf?¦. Maddie had worked the day shift, which meant I didn’t have to face their cute couple antics. He caught my eye as I walked through, and against my better judgment, I sat down across from him.
“How goes it?” I asked. My usual romantic fixation with him was put on pause when I saw that he looked agitated.
He tapped the screen in annoyance. “Bad. I’ve been staring at this screen for two hours and haven’t gotten anything done.” He paused. “No, that’s not quite true. I ordered a Wonder Twins T-shirt and watched some videos on YouTube.”
I smiled and propped my chin up in my hand. “Doesn’t sound like a bad day’s work.”
“It is when it’s been going on all week. My muse is an ungrateful harlot who’s abandoned me to actually come up with my own plots.”
“That’s a record for you,” I observed. I’d seen him have fits of writer’s block when we dated, but it never lasted more than a few days. “When’s your deadline?”
“Not for a while, but still…” He sighed. “I don’t like to be stalled out. I’m not really sure what to do with my days if I’m not writing.”
I started to say that he must have wedding stuff to do but then thought better of it. I kept to lighter topics. “Maybe it’s time to pick up a hobby. Fencing? Origami?”
That slightly bemused smile that was so characteristic for him crossed his lips. “I tried latch hook once.”
“You did not.”
“I did. Do you know how hard that is to do?”
“It’s actually pretty easy,” I said, trying to hide my laughter. “Kids do it, you know. Your nieces could probably do it.”
“They can. And you’re not making me feel better.” But those beautiful brown eyes were amused. I studied them for a moment, loving the way they would sometimes turn amber. A moment later, I snapped myself out of my lovesick spell.
“There’s always dancing,” I said mischievously.
This made him laugh too. “I think we’ve proven how futile that is.” I’d tried twice to teach him how to do it – swing and salsa – all with disastrous results. Seth’s talents lay in his mind, not his body. Well, upon further consideration, I realized that wasn’t entirely true.
“You haven’t found the right kind,” I said. I’d given up on hiding my grin.
“What’s left? Riverdance? Square dancing? And do not even suggest jazz. I saw Newsies and was traumatized for, like, five years.”
“Harsh,” I said. “You could still probably wear your T-shirts with jazz dancing. I know you must have a ‘Dancing Queen’ shirt somewhere.” His shirt today sported Chuck Norris. “Unless, of course, you wanted some variety. Square dancers have some pretty sweet costumes.
He shook his head in exasperation. “I’ll leave the dancing getup to you. And no, no ‘Dancing Queen’ shirt yet – though I do have an Abba one. I think a ‘Dancing Queen’ shirt would be better for you anyway, not me.” His eyes moved from my face to what he could see of my body at the table. “You look like you could go dancing right now.”
I started to feel myself flush at his gaze and immediately utilized shape-shifting to nix it. The unseasonably warm weather lent itself to sundresses, and I had another on today. It was a cream-colored trapeze, sleeveless with a keyhole top that may or may not have been showing managerial-appropriate cleavage. He wasn’t ogling me or anything, but I had learned long ago that Seth was good at keeping his emotions off of his face. I wondered what went through his mind. Simple aesthetic admiration? Lust? Disapproval of non-managerial cleavage?
“This old thing?” I asked breezily, uncomfortable for reasons I couldn’t explain.
“You were wearing that color the first time we met.” He suddenly seemed embarrassed. “Not sure why I remember that.”
“You don’t,” I said. “I was wearing purple.” Now I felt flustered to remember that.
He frowned in a way I found cute. “Were you? Oh, yeah. I guess you were. The violet top and flowered skirt.”
Every detail. If he’d mentioned me wearing a snakeskin jacket, I might have passed out. Yet, I had a feeling he did remember that. Probably my shoes and the way I’d styled my hair too. An awkward silence grew. I might have been keeping the flush off of my face, but there was warmth spreading through me. And only half of it was desire. The rest was something else…something sweeter and deeper.
I cleared my throat. “What’s the book about? Cady and O’Neill, right?”
He nodded, looking grateful for the subject change. “The usual. Mystery and intrigue, sexual tension and life-threatening situations.” He hesitated. “It’s the last one.”
“I – what?” I felt my jaw drop. Whatever romantic feelings that had been stirring in me immediately got pushed to the back burner. “You mean like…the end of the series?” Seth had written a lot of mysteries over his career, but Cady and O’Neill – his intrepid art and archaeology explorer duo – was his flagship series. “Why?”
He shrugged, eyes moving back to the laptop screen. “Because it’s time.”
“How…how will you make your living?”
His smile turned wry as he looked back up at me. “I’ve written other books that aren’t about them, Georgina. Besides, you don’t think my fans’ll have enough faith to follow me to a new series?”
“True,” I said softly. “We’ll follow you anywhere.” I’d meant to say “they’ll,” but it was too late.
“I hope so,” he said, averting his eyes for a moment. When he looked back, I saw a spark of excitement. “But I’m actually into doing something new. I’ve got this idea – and it’s really great. I just want to lose myself in it, you know?” I did know. I’d seen him forget parts of his real life plenty of times while caught up in a book. I wondered if this new project he was so enthusiastic about would intensify that zeal.
“So you’ve got the ending for Cady and O’Neill figured out?” I asked.
“No,” he said with a sigh, glow dimming. “That’s the problem. I don’t know how this is going to end.”
I suddenly wondered if he was still talking about the books. Our gazes met again, and whatever might have come next was interrupted when Beth appeared at my side. “Georgina? A friend of yours is here to see you.”
My heart leapt. Roman. Roman had read my note. His advice on that eerie siren song was about the only thing that could have dragged me away from Seth. I sprang up from my seat, giving Seth an apologetic look. “I’ve got to go.”
He nodded, some troubled emotion in his eyes that I couldn’t identify. That troubled me in return. He might be good at keeping his emotions off of his face, but at one time, I’d been pretty good at figuring them out.
“No problem,” he said. Wistfulness? Was that the mystery emotion?
I couldn’t ponder it any longer. Roman was more important. I took the steps downstairs two at a time, anxious to see him. But when I reached the registers, where Beth had said my friend was waiting, it wasn’t Roman I saw. It was Cody.
Or, well, I think it was.
It took me a moment to figure it out. He was dressed all in black – and not just jeans and a T-shirt. We were talking full regalia: a studded-leather jacket, steel-toed boots, and an – ugh – mesh shirt. His blond hair had black streaks in it, and heavy black eyeliner and lipstick over white foundation completed the look. I didn’t know what to say, so I simply grabbed his arm and dragged him into my office before anyone else could see him.
“What the hell are you doing?” The sun had only just gone down, which meant he must have doubled the speed limit to make it here so quickly.
“I’m here to see Gabrielle,” he explained, casting an anxious glance at my doorway. “Where is she? I wanted to get here before you guys closed.”
“She’s not working tonight.” His face fell, but I couldn’t help but add, “And honestly, I think that’s a good thing.”
“Why? Peter had a copy of The Seattle Sinner, and after going through it, we thought this would be the way to get her attention. He helped dress me.”
“Wait. Peter had a copy of – ? Never mind. I don’t want to know. Believe me, you would have gotten her attention. But I’m not sure it’d be the kind you want.”
Cody gestured to his attire. “But she’s into this scene. You said yourself that she dresses all in black.”
“Yeah,” I admitted. “But yours seems…I don’t know. Overdone. People like her are always on the lookout for wannabes. You try too hard, and you’ll just put her further off.”
He sighed and slumped into my desk’s chair, dejected. “Then what am I supposed to do? That newspaper was my only lead.”
“Well, for starters, don’t let Peter dress you again. Ever. As for the rest…I don’t know. Let me ask around and see if I can get you more to go on. Just please don’t wear this outfit again.”
“Okay,” he agreed.
Just then, Doug stuck his head in. It wasn’t his night to work, so I was kind of surprised, but not nearly as surprised as he was.
“Hey, Kincaid, I had a question about the schedu – Jesus Fucking Christ! What is that?”
“It’s Cody,” I said.
Doug walked gingerly into the office and peered at Cody’s face. “Well, I’ll be damned. It is. I thought it was the ghost of Gene Simmons.”
“Gene Simmons isn’t dead,” said Cody.
“Cody’s trying to impress Gabrielle,” I explained. Doug opened his mouth, no doubt to comment on the impossibility of that, but I held up a hand to stop him. “Yeah, yeah. I know. What did you need?”
Doug needed to switch some shifts, and without his ladylove around, Cody decided to leave. I let him out the back door, not wanting to cause a panic in the store. Once the schedule was set, Doug and I bantered about the Cody and Gabrielle situation. Before long, I lost track of time, and closing announcements were being made on the intercom. Doug said his farewells – half afraid I’d put him to work if he stayed – and I set off to finish my own tasks. My meeting with Erik was getting closer, and I felt a mix of excitement and apprehension.
An hour after the doors were locked, staff began to go home. I made one last sweep of the store and found Seth still sitting in the caf?¦. No surprise. My coworkers could never bring themselves to kick him out when we closed. He’d actually gotten locked in once and accidentally set off the alarm. I walked over to his table, noting the enraptured look on his face as his fingers danced along the laptop’s keys.
“Hey, Mortensen,” I said. “You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.”
It took almost thirty seconds for him to look up, and even then, he seemed surprised to see me. “Oh. Hey.”
I could feel a smile playing on my lips. This was picture perfect Seth behavior. “Hey, we’re all closed down. Time to go.”
He glanced around, noting the dark windows and lack of people in the store. “Oh, man. Sorry. I didn’t even notice.”
“I take it the muse came back?”
“So you know how it’s going to end now?”
“No. Not yet.”
I walked Seth to the back door and armed the alarm before letting myself out. He told me good-bye, and if he’d had any dreamy affection for me earlier in the night, it was gone now. His characters now consumed his heart. It was something I’d had to accept when we were together, and watching him walk down the street, I decided that was how it should be. Seth’s writing was too much of his being.
I let my own dreamy affection go and drove up north of the city to Erik’s store. I still felt a little bad about him meeting me so late, but the lights in his windows gleamed out into the night. And inside, the usual music and incense were going strong, just as they would during business hours. Glancing around, I didn’t see him right away. Then, I noticed him kneeling down in front of some palmistry books.
He rose to his feet, but the motions were jerky and unsteady. And when he finally turned to face me, there was a gauntness in his dark-skinned face that hadn’t been there the last time I saw him. My instinct was to rush over and support him, but I had a feeling he wouldn’t welcome that. Still, I asked the obvious.
“Are you okay? Have you been sick?”
He gave me a gentle smile and began moving – slowly – toward the store’s main counter. “A passing cold. They seem to last longer than they used to, but I’ll be fine.”
I wasn’t so certain. I’d known Erik for a long time…. I’d lost track of the years, actually. It wasn’t an uncommon thing with mortals, one that often blindsided me. One moment they’d seem young and healthy…the next, they were old and dying. It never hurt any less, either. Part of the reason Seth had broken up with me was to spare me the pain of that loss because I began growing overly paranoid about his well-being.
Now, watching Erik, I felt even worse for keeping him out so late. I also felt bad because I realized I never visited except when I needed something. When had I last seen him? Months ago, when Jerome had been summoned. I’d sought Erik’s help then and hadn’t been by since.
“Tea?” he offered, just like always.
“No, no. I don’t want to delay you,” I said. I leaned against the counter and felt relieved when he settled down on a stool. “I just wanted to ask you a couple things. Something weird happened.” I almost laughed as the words left my mouth. That was such a typical opening statement for me. Again, that earlier thought returned: my life was one big circle, repeating and repeating.
I gave him the rundown on my weird encounters with the unknown and – for the large part – indescribable force. He listened carefully, bushy gray eyebrows knit into a frown.
“I hate to tell you this,” he said when I finished, “but there are probably a number of things that could describe.”
“Surprise, surprise,” I murmured. That was more a commentary on my life, not his abilities.
“The fact that your…uh, friend couldn’t identify it is intriguing.” Erik was one of the handful of people who knew Roman was in Seattle. Erik had no interest in Heaven and Hell’s policies and wouldn’t be tattling anytime soon. “Of course, he lacks the full skill set his relatives have. I don’t suppose you’ve spoken to any greater immortals?”
I shook my head. “No. They’re notoriously absent, as usual. I think I’ll be seeing Jerome soon.” He’d probably want to check in with Roman. “So we’ll see then.”
“I’m sorry I don’t have any ready answers. I never seem to.”
“Not in the beginning,” I said. “But you always come through in the end. More patterns.”
“Nothing,” I said with a small sigh. “Sometimes I just feel like the same things are happening to me over and over. Like, even this siren thing. Why me? In the last year, I’ve been targeted over and over. What are the odds? Why does this keep happening?”
Erik’s eyes studied me for several moments. “There are some people around whom the powers and supernatural beings of the world will always circle. You appear to be one of them.”
“But why?” I asked, surprised at the childish tone in my voice. “I’m just another succubus. There are tons of us out there. And why recently? Why only in the last year?” It had to be the cruelest joke in the world that all these paranormal mishaps had started happening right when my romantic ones had. Apparently, one source of pain just wasn’t enough.
“I don’t know,” Erik admitted. “Things change. Forces move that we can’t see.” He paused and coughed, making me wince. How sick was he? “Again, I feel like I’m useless to you.”
I reached out and gently squeezed his shoulder. “No, no. You’re invaluable to me. I don’t know how I would have gotten by all these years without you.” This earned me a smile.
Wanting him to go to bed, I picked up my purse to leave. As I was heading to the door, he suddenly said, “Miss Kincaid?”
I glanced back. “Yeah?”
“Do you still talk to Mr. Mortensen?”
The question caught me by surprise. Erik had been intrigued when Seth and I were dating, marveling at the connection between a human and a succubus, though he didn’t have the crazy obsession that Carter used to.
“Sure. Sometimes.” My earlier conversation with Seth came back to me, the ease and warmth that had surrounded us.
“And things are amicable?”
“More or less.” Aside from his impending marriage, of course.
“That’s good. It doesn’t always happen in these situations.”
“Yeah, I know. Although – ” I bit off my words.
Erik tilted his head, studying me curiously. “Although what?”
“It’s amicable, except sometimes…sometimes this whole situation with him. It’s like having my soul split in two.”
“Understandable,” he said. Those eyes burned with compassion, and I felt tears spring up in my own. “I’m sorry I brought it up. I was just curious.”
I assured him it was okay and said good-bye again. The mention of Seth and the recollection of being with him earlier had made my mood go melancholy. I drove back to West Seattle, miserable that I’d be helping with his wedding tomorrow and worried over Erik’s sickly state. As heavily as those thoughts weighed on me, they immediately flew from my mind as soon as I walked into my living room.
He sat on the couch as he had last time, now eating a microwavable chicken pot pie. The TV was on, but he didn’t seem to be watching it. When he looked up at me, he didn’t wear that amused, teasing look. His expression was dark. Troubled, even.
“I’ve been waiting for you to get home,” I exclaimed, tossing my purse and keys to the floor. “You won’t believe what happened.”
Roman sighed. “No, you won’t believe what happened.”
“Yeah, but this is – “
He held up a hand to interrupt me. “Let me get this out first. It’s been driving me crazy.”
I swallowed my impatience. “Okay. I’ll bite. Does it have something to do with Simone?”
He nodded. “Yeah. I followed her tonight to this twenty-four-hour coffee shop called Bird of Paradise.” He eyed me carefully. “Do you know it?”
Now I felt a frown creeping over my face. “Yeah…it’s in Queen Anne, right around the corner from Emerald City. What was she doing there? I mean, aside from getting coffee?”
Roman’s expression turned darker and – unless I was mistaken – sympathetic. “She was there hitting on a guy,” he said. “Seth.”